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Apple’s animated musical comedy series Central Park is “a love letter to perseverance and passion, to New York City,” in the words of Josh Gad, who created the series with Loren Bouchard and Nora Smith.
The series follows an ensemble of characters including a family that lives in the park — voiced by Leslie Odom Jr. (Owen), Kristen Bell (Molly), Kathryn Hahn (Paige), Tituss Burgess (Cole) — Bitsy, a wealthy land developer voiced by Stanley Tucci; and her put-upon assistant Helen (Daveed Diggs). (Days after this interview, it was announced that Bell’s bi-racial character would be recast in season two.)
Street performer/narrator Birdie is voiced by Gad — perhaps best known for his role as Olaf in Disney’s Frozen — who is also a writer on the series. Season one also features a string of guest songwriters including Alan Menken, Sara Bareilles, Cyndi Lauper, Glenn Slater, Darren Criss, Aimee Mann, Meghan Trainor, Anthony Hamilton, Fiona Apple, Rafael Casal and Utkarsh Ambudkar (more are on the way for season two).
Kate Anderson and Elyssa Samsel (Olaf’s Frozen Adventure) and Brent Knopf (Bob’s Burgers) serve as the show’s composers and writers, while musical arrangements are created by the music production team, including executive music producer Frank Ciampi (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), music supervisor Patrick Dacey (Bob’s Burgers) and music editor Tim Dacey (Bob’s Burgers). Here, Gad provides a behind-the-scenes look at the series.
How did the project come together?
I had this idea for a show that could take my known passion for the musical form and apply it to the small screen. That, to me, had been done fleetingly, but from what I had seen it had been done almost like in a pastiche manner where the television musicals that I saw were almost commenting on being a musical as opposed to being a living, breathing musical. I pitched this idea to my agent and he said, “You know who would be great for this? You should sit down with Loren Bouchard.” I said, “From Bob’s Burgers? He’ll never do this.” As fate would have it, Loren and Nora said, “Yeah, this is good.” I was, like, wait, what?
Loren tasked me with coming up with the perfect cast meant to represent the kind of people that I would want to work with on a show. We didn’t even have characters. But I knew that I wanted to create the Avengers of musical theater. So I reached out to people like my college classmate Leslie Odom Jr., who won a Tony for Hamilton. People like Daveed Diggs, Tony Award-winning co-star from Hamilton. People like my brilliant co-star from Frozen, Kristen Bell. People that I’ve admired but never worked with before like Kathryn Hahn and Tituss Burgess. And of course, the brilliant Stanley Tucci.
Why Central Park?
Central Park has represented to me, for my entire life, this place that is this oasis of green in the middle of a steel jungle. It’s also a place that I like to think of as an even playing field. You can be the wealthiest person in the world or the poorest person in the world and the park is still accessible to all, to enjoy together. And that really was something that I thought would make for really cool storytelling.
Where we started this adventure was to create something that was a bright light, that was a shining beacon of joy and a love letter to perseverance and passion, to New York City, to standing up for what you believe in in the face of adversity, thematically and tonally. I had no idea just how much those things would be needed right now in the midst of so many crises. To have a show that is pure joy, I hope, gives to people what they so desperately need right now, which is a break. And hopefully puts a smile on their face. And hopefully the music, in particular, lifts your spirits, lifts your soul.
Were there things that you learned while working on Frozen that you applied to this series?
With Frozen, it was a very different experience because I was a backseat participant to that whereas now I was sort of helping to drive the ship. But the one thing that I really learned from the Frozen experience in particular was about narrative story to music — and that was, in many ways, the guiding principle of what we were doing. We weren’t just going to do a special episode of Bob’s Burgers. One big song. We wanted it to have at least three to four songs per episode to drive the story and to emotionally tell us where a character’s at.
I knew we needed some in-house composers to help put up the guideposts for what we wanted to create as the sound of the series. So I reached out to Kate Anderson and Elyssa Samsel, two brilliant lyricists/composers whom I met on Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, and their music was so incredible just in that brief short I really had an idea that they were capable of so much more.
We could anchor the series with these incredible songs, and what it allowed us to do was also bring in other folks, guest composers, because truth be told, we didn’t want to burn out our composers by having them write 40-something songs per season.
And we wanted a diversity of sound, diversity that represents different genres, different types of voices, and so that was really important to us. That process really was refined based on my experiences of working with the brilliant creative team of Frozen including Oscar winners Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez.
What are some of the musicals that gave you inspiration for songs?
For every episode and for every song we look at a slew of musical inspirations. With “Central to My Heart,” the song that begins our series, we knew we wanted almost like a Alan Menken-, Howard Ashman-type of opening number. Think of “Belle” from Beauty and the Beast.
With a song like the one that Daveed Diggs [sings], “Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way” — that was clearly inspired by Daveed’s work in Hamilton. We had this idea of, you know, what would it be like to take a song like the one Thomas Jefferson sings in Hamilton and just throw it on its head and have it instead coming out of a 70-year-old assistant who is desperate to get in her employer’s will, which is why she puts up with all the shit that’s thrown her way.
Would you describe the process. At what point are the songs written for the episode?
At the beginning of the process, once the writers have determined basically the main beats of the story, we ask them to present us with that outline and also with the moments that they want to sing. Now, a lot of our writers aren’t necessarily familiar with musical theater and musical form, so a lot of times when we get it we’ll notice that there’s a whole lot of story heavy lifting that’s being asked to be done. And usually when a song soars, it’s more of a thematic song. Think of like, “Weirdoes Make Great Superheroes” (written by Bareilles and performed by Bell). That song sort of soars because of its simple message. So a lot of times we look for those moments in an episode once we’ve been handed an outline to determine, OK, which of these moments wants to sing and which of these can instead be accomplished through dialogue? And then that process will become more refined once we have a script in place.
From there we’ll take the outline of the song including a sort of word salad, as we call it, to give our composers inspiration, hand it over to them and also hand them over the full script for the episode along with clips of our characters that they’re writing for, from a slew of previous episodes. That process then just becomes a back-and-forth collaboration.
This interview is edited for length and clarity.
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